New rule limits female athletes’ testosterone levels
The Santa Clara
May 9, 2019
Caster Semenya, the double Olympic gold medalist and threetime World Champion from South Africa in the women’s 800-meter, has battled adversity in track and field ever since she entered the sport 10 years ago. Now she faces an unexpected obstacle: she may never get to compete in her event again.
Semenya has become a role model in the sport for being a courageous, fast, gay black woman who takes a stand for human rights. Last week, however, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS)—the highest court for international sports— ruled that female athletes with naturally higher levels of testosterone may not compete as women unless they make efforts to reduce that hormone in their bodies.
“I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast,” she said in a press release. “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am.”
Semenya is believed by many to have hyperandrogenism, a medical condition characterized by the body naturally producing higher levels of testosterone. This condition allows for an increase in muscle mass, muscle strength and hemoglobin, which all enhance endurance.
According to the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), about seven in every 1,000 elite female athletes in track and field have naturally higher testosterone levels—and Semenya is one of them.
After winning the World Championships in 2009, she was asked by IAAF to take a sex verification test to prove she was female. The results were never publicly released but soon after, Semenya was cleared to race other women. She has also never tested positive for any banned substances during drug tests. Still, over the years the debate of whether or not Semenya can compete in women’s races has continued—even though she is a female according to her chromosomes.
In 2018, the IAAF announced a new rule forcing female athletes with testosterone above a certain level to take medication to lower it in order to compete against other women in the 400, 800 and 1,500-meter events. These particular events require a distinct combination of speed and endurance, compared to other sprinting or distance events.
Under this new rule, an athlete who does not wish to lower her testosterone levels is left to face a devastating choice: change her event, compete against the men or give up her dreams of competing in the Olympics.
Instead, Semenya chose to fight back. She took the ruling to the CAS, calling it “discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable” and belittling to women who choose not to conform to stereotypical notions of femininity. Despite her efforts to appeal the rule, the court rejected her challenge by a 2-1 majority vote.
Track and field is a sport with many fixed boundaries. There is a starting line, finish line and perfect oval that only flows continuously in one direction with runners only turning left. There are lane assignments based on who can clock the fastest times, and these times can make a runner into one of the world’s best—or, just another runner. These boundaries are never questioned and forever obeyed. They make up the beautiful pure design of the sport—the foot-race— that is as old as the Olympics themselves.
Today, though, we live in a society in which the traditional lines defining and dividing femininity and masculinity based on gender are becoming increasingly blurred. We are in the midst of a positive cultural shift that accepts the fluidity of gender roles and identifications as a norm rather than an exception.
As a lesbian woman of color competing at the highest level, Semenya creates a direct space for today’s notions of inclusivity to occur. In the face of those changes, the sports world, particularly track and field with its distinct gender boundaries, faces an existential dilemma: in the name of competitiveness and fairness, should it reaffirm historic gender definitions, or should it break down those stereotypes in the name of inclusivity?
These newly implemented rules demand that talented strong women medically change their bodies in order to continue to compete at the highest level in a sport that they love—and at which they are highly competitive. Once these female athletes surrender freedom and control of their bodies—as determined by a bureaucracy— the issue of human rights plays an even larger role.
“Women with [hormonal] variations have the same right to dignity and control over their bodies as other women, and it’s deeply disappointing to see CAS uphold regulations that run afoul of international human rights standards,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, deputy executive director for the United Nations Human Rights Watch program. “In excluding women competitors based on their natural hormone levels, the IAAF regulations stigmatize, stereotype and discriminate against all women.”
The next major competition is the IAAF World Championships, starting late September in Doha, Qatar. If Semenya chooses to compete, she will have to medically lower her testosterone levels by then—or not race at all. There is still time to make this change, if she chooses.
Regardless of the current rules, the racer has indicated she will not be held back by the court’s decision and will “continue to inspire young athletes in South Africa and around the world.”
Contact Lacey Yahnke at lyahnke@ scu.edu or call (408) 554-4852.